Tuesday, October 04, 2005

architectural hell: a look into a typicaly student life at a public university

Built somewhere in the '60s, UIC has serious architectural problems. And I don't mean the chunks of concrete peeling off from the towering University Hall. The exposed (and of course rusting) iron structure 300 feet above my pedestrian head is scary, but that doesn't affect my daily life at this public university. (I made a point not to walk underneath it.) What I'm talking about is what bothers me every single day.

UIC's east campus has, in its center, six single-story "lecture hall" buildings, which are separated into six large lecture halls (surprise!). Due to some mysterious whim of the architect, these lecture halls, even if they're in a same building, aren't connected with each other inside of the building. One has to get out of the building, go around the corner, and get in again to go from one lecture hall to the other. This causes a mess between classes, especially when it's rainy out: one has to wait in line to get out, open one's umbrella to get to a room in the same freakin' building (sorry), and wait in line again to get back in. And mind you, there's no restrooms in these lecture hall buildings, each of which probably house more than a thousand students. Again, one has to get out of the building to go to whichever restrooms nearest to the lecture hall, located in separate buildings. The toilet theme, sadly enough, becomes a recurrent theme in this exploration of bad campus planning.

Surrounding the lecture halls are three-story, one-basement halls, each floor of which probably has ten smaller classrooms. As an English major, I frequent two of those: the Stevenson Hall and the Burnham Hall. Both have problems. To stick with the toilet issue, I'll start with the Stevenson Hall. This building probably has a capacity of more than a thousand students (35students in each room x 10 rooms on each floor X 3 floors). Since most classes held in the building are English classes, the majoriy of these 1000+ students are female. Keep this in mind and try to picture what would happen if this building had only three working toilet stolls. It's not that hard to imagine, right? But obviously it was too hard for the architect (and for the administration). There ARE only three working toilet stolls in this building. There are five stolls (which wouldn't be enough anyway). Yet, one of the five is perpetually clogged and one has its door sitting on the floor. The lines are so bad that I decided not to go to the restroom in this building: it is practically impossible to use the bathroom here and make it on time to the next class. To make confuison worse, the only one hand drier is located on the opposite side of the sinks. So one has to turn around, bump into the line of people waiting to use the bathroom in the narrow space between the sinks and the drier, murmur some applogy, and again wait in another line to use the hand drier. This is the worst toilet design I've ever seen in my life.

The restroom in the Burnham Hall is not as bad--its five stools are all functioning. It even has two hand driers--even on the same side as the sinks, what a luxury!--only that one of them is long dead... The Burnham Hall has a congestion problem elsewhere: in the stairwell. Housing about the same number of students as the Stevenson Hall, it has only one staircase. Well, technically there are two, but one leads to nowhere. The width of the stairs is barely enough for two people to pass. And that is assuming a person of usual to slim build. As college students, we're typically bulged up with backpacks and shoulder backs, if not with "a few extra pounds," and this makes it almost imossible to climb or descend the stairs without twisting our bodies in order not to bump into the people going the opposite direction. Not surprisingly, the movement becomes s........l.........o..........w........... Painfully slow. Between classes, on each floor, there is always a large pool of students waiting to slip into the staircase file. As if the narrowness weren't enough, the architect went out of his way to make a large gap between the steps and the surrounding walls, resulting in the further slowdown of movement: nobody wants to lose his steps into this threatening opening. I just don't want to imagine what would happen in case of emergency. I bet there'll be injuries, if not deathes.

"Student Center" building houses two cafeterias, computer labs, and a bookstore, among other things related to students' life. One of the two major ways to reach the upper floors is an escalator located in the middle of the building. (The other is to use an exterior stairwell.) As the main artery of the building, there is usually a constant flow of people getting on and off this escalator. For some reason, the entrance to the escalator hall is limited to the width of the escalators with glass doors, concentrating the stream of people in one congested area. It is, therefore, very tricky to cross this escalator hall, especially when one has a cup of coffee in one hand and a muffin and an apple precariously heaped in another. Since the escalator hall separates two dining halls, one often finds oneself shuffling through the people, in search for an open table, in exactly that situation. A nice addition is an old communist guy who hands out capitalism-condemning, revolution-inciting pamphlets at the foot of the escalator, probably every day for decades. There is just no way to get around without frustration.

Simply put, the architect who designed the campus and the administrative board which must have approved his plan didn't give any consideration to the logistics of moving a large number of people efficiently in and around campus buildings. Yet, from what I heard from one of the professors, it could have been worse: the original plan of the architect was to cover the campus entirely with concrete, expelling any element of nature, after the glorious examples of Italian Renaissance cities. Maybe I should be glad that this part didn't see the light of the day. Life would have been much more unpleasant if they had adopted this belated representation of the human triumph over the ferocious force of nature.


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